In 2016 I wrote a post that seemed to capture people’s imagination in a way that others didn’t. Autscriptic has since been shared far and wide.
It taught me that there is great power in sharing conversations between neurotypes: Laying bare the misunderstandings that tangle us up.
The first Autscriptic was about the trials of masking, this Autscriptic is about the times when I’ve had people quantify my autism based on how well I can smile. Once again it is not me recounting any one conversation, it’s a story based on many conversations I have had. Usually with people who know little about me and less about my autism diagnosis.
You must have a mild form
Mild and soft and gentle as a summer rain?
What does mild mean?
Well, you’re not very… flappy. You can talk, you can look at me. I just mean you don’t seem very…
Yes… no… sort of
I don’t seem very different so it must be very mild?
Yes… I mean that as a good thing
Is it a good thing?
Yes, it means you can, you know, be included, be a part of things. It means you can join in.
Which bits of my autism are mild?
I don’t know what you mean
Which bits? If autism is how my brain processes information, how can it do that mildly or harshly?
It just doesn’t seem to affect you as much, that’s all. I’m glad it doesn’t
You’re glad I don’t have harsh autism?
Yes, if that’s how you want to put it
But my autism isn’t what I put on my face
What you see, here, my face, I can frown and smile and move all the muscles, my autism doesn’t do that. I do that
I don’t think I understand
I don’t think you understand. My face moves, it is a good face, it goes this way and that. I can raise a quizzical eyebrow, or grimace or gurn. It can do many things. It is my face. It is not my autism
Well, no, but…
I do these things to show you, to communicate with you, I’ve learned your ways and your smiles. I use them too. They’re not my autism. I do them
You do them?
I do. And when the lights are screaming, or you touch my arm, or you confuse me, I don’t put those things on my face. I learnt that long ago. You don’t want to see those things, they make you flinch away. They make you tell me the things I can sense are not real. They make you tell me to lie. So I don’t put them on my face. They are my autism, just for me
I just… but it’s still… I’m not expressing this well
Yes, but, you can talk. That’s great, and you’re good at communicating, and all that. That’s what I mean by mild
That’s what you mean by mild. It is great. It is great that words find me, that they flutter down onto my shoulders and hands like I’m a Disney princess. They are my friends, most of the time. They’re full of patterns and flight, like a murmuration of starlings, they flow this way and that. But sometimes, just sometimes, they all fly away and leave me. They flutter from my grasp just when I need them the most
Words don’t work like that
Yes. That’s the sort of thing people say. They tell me things that work that way for me, can’t work that way, because they don’t work that way for them
Well they don’t work like that
Don’t they? I bet I can make them work like that for you
I want you to sing a song. A fast one with lots of words, but one you know well. Could you do that?
I think so
‘I think so’ means yes, doesn’t it? So whilst you sing that song, I want you to remember the third, the eighth and the fourteenth words of a poem you knew as a child. You’re not allowed to recite the poem in your mind as you sing, you just have to find the words. Can you find them?
No, there’s too much going on
There are times when there’s too much going on. Words are hard to find then. I can’t find them. I look at a thing and will the words, but they stay hidden in the leaves of their trees. I stare at the thing, wanting its label to wing its way to me, but it won’t. Then later it’s there again. Just a ‘table’, that’s all the word was, but it won’t come and nor will its friends
But you’re so… eloquent
I’m so eloquent… and mild
I didn’t mean to suggest that some things aren’t hard
I don’t know
You don’t know. But you knew enough to know that I was mild?
Yes… no… I feel like there’s a miscommunication here
There’s a miscommunication here
Should I not say mild?
Is it helpful? Does it make assumptions? Does it help with understanding? What is mild? How is it defined? Can you quantify my autism? Can you deal with my tangents and my variables? Do you mean mild to mean easy, or gentle, or diluted, or this or that or the other?
Which question do you want me to answer?
All of them. Quickly and in order and in the right way
I can’t do that?
Why? Why not? Why can your brain not fire off all the edges to all my tangents? If all my cobweb thoughts are so mild, why can’t you bring them back?
I feel like I’ve insulted you
Not insulted, much worse, misunderstood. You’ve misunderstood me. You see me here, masking to fit in and you pat my mask on its papier-mâché corners and tell me how wonderful it it. But it isn’t. It’s heavy. It weighs me down and exhausts me. I can’t play with my hands inside my mask, which means I can’t drown out the sensory noise with my nice senses. I have to watch you so carefully to match you expression for expression and check your true meaning against your words. I have to put my face on and decode yours and speak and emote, and communicate in your ways that are so unnatural to me
And my reward is to be told that I look just like one of you so the mask must not exist
It sounds hard
I’d love you to have to spend a day as me. Not really as me. I’d love you to have to spend a day not being true to yourself
What do you mean?
I mean, autism is the new status quo. You now have to walk around all day controlling your expressions, you have to resist your social urges to connect through small talk. You have to hold back from small social contacts. You have to avoid eye contact and speak in purposeful bursts. If you had to spend all day controlling all your natural urges because otherwise you would be stared at or punished, then you would understand the weight of mild neurotypicality or non-autism
That… that would be exhausting
But I’m lucky I’m so mild. I’m lucky I affect you so mildly
I just meant you’re not… I haven’t expressed this well. You’re not, I don’t know, banging your head against the wall or screaming or any of that
Not now, no
Not now? You mean you do?
When I’m weighed down. When I’m overloaded. When I need pain sensations to cut through the other pains in my head. Yes. The more I wear the mask, the more often I am… not mild? But not here. Not now. Not with a stranger. I do not let you see me scream
Can I start again?
No, but you can start from here
I didn’t understand
And you still don’t, but there’s hope for you yet
There is, you just have to keep listening